a long drive in the Outback, along a road with no name – though it passes the Red Lily Billabong so we called it that – Red Lily Billabong Road.
These are the confirmed birds seen in the Northern Territory, primarily:
Fogg Dam Reservoir
- Magpie goose
- White-bellied sea eagle
- Jabiru (black-necked stork)
- Great-billed heron
- White-necked heron
- Pied heron
- Cattle egret
- LIttle egret
- Great egret
- Pied cormorant
- Straw-necked ibis
- Australian white ibis
- Australasian darter
- Royal spoonbill
- Tawny frogmouth
- Peaceful dove
- Striated heron (mangrove heron)
- Swamp harrier
- Sulfur-crested cockatoo
- Little Corella
- Rainbow lorikeet
- Barking owl (heard, not seen)
- Rainbow bee-eater
- Black kite
- Magpie lark
- Brolga (Australian crane)
- Caspian tern
- White-breasted woodswallow
- Red-tailed black cockatoo
And a bunch of gulls and more raptors….but I’m not so great at identifying those.
In the Top End, between Darwin and Kakadu National Park, the Mary River twists through a vast expanse of wetlands and floodplains, some of which form the Corroboree Billabong. Corraboree is an Aboriginal word meaning “ritual gathering place”, and we are here now, floating at anchor on a misty morning, watching the gathering, the corroboree, of those who live here in the billabong. Early this morning, very early, before the sun came up and while the marsh was lit in pale blue by the light of the full moon, an interested crocodile cruised by my bedroom window; and now that the sun is rising pink and chalky grey above the reeds, the fish are snapping at flies, the birds are beginning to rouse themselves (though a juvenile white-bellied sea eagle still perches on a withered tree nearby, hunch-shouldered, staring, with a spiky head feathers like a sullen teenage punk rocker, waiting for more of this cold mist to dissipate. I sit wrapped in a blanket on the upper deck, waiting for the rolling mists to dissipate, the same as the sea-eagle – but with a cup of tea. Our houseboat is called Janine. She sleeps six comfortably, is equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and shower, and couldn’t be more perfect for a leisurely cruise through a slow winding crocodile-infested river. Ruth and John, the owners of Mary River Houseboats, are the kind of people you instantly wished were your next-door neighbors. They explained the workings of the boat in an appealing, relaxed Australian way. This included this immortal bit of advice from Ruth: “Here are the life-jackets, but don’t wear them. Crocs like bright colors, so if you get in trouble, just throw them one way and swim the other – fast.”
Life teems in the billabong. It surges, it hops, buzzes, swims , flies, and rare is the moment when you don’t see or hear something close at hand. Birds soar and sail and dip and scoop up fish from the river. Hawks, eagles, terns, cormorants, parrots, cockatoos, bee-eaters, geese, herons and cranes, swallows and swifts dart and weave. We fished for Barrumundi, but as of sun-up, have not yet caught one. And then there is the apex predator, the great salt water crocodile – the Saltie.
“It goes without saying, you mustn’t go in for a swim,” Ruth told us. “But don’t leave the boat at all. The crocs like the tall grass too.” As of sunrise, we’ve counted twenty-one (including the one who cruised by my bedroom window by moonlight. [Update: in all we’ve seen thirty-one salties and two freshies (the much less aggressive fresh-water crocodile]
Of those seen, I estimate 3% could be considered harmless (Bite? You call THAT a bite?). 80% are potentially lethal, certainly painful. And the remaining 17% are unsurvivable – especially a big bruiser who we counted as the ninth we saw and became, ever after, the dreaded Nine.
When night arrived, we were told to keep all lights off to prevent the arrival of Mozzies – the dreaded wetlands mosquitoes. We lowered the screens, doused the lights, and watched the sun until it set and then we chatted in the dark. We used a bright spotlight now and then to shine upon the shore, and always there we saw red eyes sparkling, watching.
Off with the lights again. A splash, a squawk, and some unfortunate bird met its end. After chatting as long as could in the dark, we went to our separate bunks, all of us to read under blankets using flashlights. I was under mine reading Bruch Chatwin’s Songlines, all the while listening to the outside splashes and night birds and lazy waves against Janine’s aluminum pontoons The only fatality we know of on the billabong was caused by a sudden high wind that capsized a houseboat (we’re not sure whose houseboat it was, or if it was in this part of the Mary River) A woman drowned when trapped below deck, but all others escaped their swim across the river. Last night another high wind rose – I heard it and felt it, followed by my brother-in-law Mitch’s voice calling and the engine starting. I heard all this but was still so close to sleep, I never responded, but to lift my head at the sound of the wind and think, “yikes,” and drop my head again.
This morning I learned the wind had caused us to drag anchor and sent us into the lily pads with one pontoon up on shore. Fearing snakes, (which was kind of him, as my head was closest to shore) Mitch decided to move us back into the middle of the river. While my nephew Cameron poled off and we left the shore, a light shining upon the shore showed two sinister red eyes in the place which vacated, which in turn, very likely means that crocodile could have been peering in my window at my sleeping form and whispering, “And what have we here?”
Not long after sunup, a small power boat wended through the waterways and approached – it was John, delivering the morning paper and a basket filled with fresh scones baked by Ruth “for your morning tea,” as he said, and in the morning paper, we read of a saltie attack in a far off billabong, nowhere near us.
They have a good life, these salties do. There is no end of food, plenty of warmth and sunshine, clean water, boats to inspect and people to awe and terrify, and lots of mud banks to lay upon and work on their tan. All the denizens of the billabong have a good life, and I feel they somehow must know it on some level. “It’s good to be me,” says the young sea-eagle when he takes off in the morning lights, as does the barramundi leaping up for a fly.
“It’s good to be me,” the fish says, and so does the crocodile Nine – “It’s really good to be me.”
The Black Kite (Milvus migrans)
Aboriginal name BuludjiIts
These birds of prey are attracted to fire and smoke where they gather in huge numbers to hunt fleeing rodents, insects and lizards.
It is known as the fire-starter bird by the Aborigines, who tell stories of the birds intentionally picking up burning twigs and dropping them in patches of unburnt grass to flush out prey.
My father remarks (with good reason) that whenever I travel I usually claim to want to live in whatever place I’ve visited. This – with the exception of Iceland – is true, though by “live there” I generally mean on a temporary basis, as in “I would like to live in Paris for a year.” The exceptions to this (meaning places I could live in on a permanent basis) are few: New York City is one. London is another.
I may be jumping the gun a bit as I base my opinion on a very short visit, but it would appear that Sydney, Australia could join the list. Here are a few reasons why (there are many more, but I’ll hit upon the main ones to keep this at a respectable length)
English-speaking. Not necessary, but helpful in those moments when your brain is tired and mentally conjugating one more damn verb is a bridge too far.
It’s Londony/New Yorky. There were moments when, were someone to pull a blindfold from my eyes and scream, “Where are you??”, flustered and startled I would blurt out, “Oh my God, I’m in London – why are you yelling?”
I snapped this photo of Hyde Park on a brisk Australian winter’s day thinking “Oh look, Hyde Park,” – until…oh wait, there’s an ibis. (see him in the lower right?) And tropical vegetation. So yes, it is Hyde Park, but the Southern Hemisphere version, all Londony until you see it isn’t.
Ibises. The pigeons of Sydney, though there are real pigeons too, and parrots, and magpies, and all kinds of birds I’d never seen in a city. I enjoyed the docile, sweet-tempered ibises, though my host in Surry Hills, who I shall call Matt because that’s his name, grimaced when I mentioned the wonders of seeing an ibis in a city park.
“Were they grey?” he asked.
“They’re supposed to be white.”
And come to think of it, yes, they did appear disheveled and in need of a nice, long bath.Tea. They love it and know how to brew it. Enough said.
Coffee. They do a bang-up job with this too, though with a bewildering variety of names: long black, macchiato, short black, flat white, After much discussion I settled on flat white as the best for me and I never looked back. (Note: here is a description of a proper Flat White: “a shot or two of espresso with steamed milk and no froth in a regular cup.”)
Multi-Culti. Have no fear: you will have no trouble finding curry or pad thai or kebab chow mei fun.
The Opera House. The Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building of the Southern Hemisphere, iconic, instantly recognizable. It is so bold, so well-proportioned, yet startling, that I marvel it exists at all. Good on you, Committee Who Decided, for going out on a limb and choosing this daring design.
Climate. I experienced the brutal Sydney winter, during which some inhabitants went about wearing scarves, gloves and long coats though I found a light wind-breaker sufficient for the pleasant, chilly low 60s F with a touch of rain, like London in March or New York in early April. I have no clue what the summer would bring, but by most accounts, it brings flowers, gorgeous sunny days and tanned beach bodies.
Featherdale Wildlife Park. Because this happened:
Australians. They have Australians in Sydney. Lots of them (though I saw not a single Aborigine in the city). Not as brusque as New Yorkers, nor as aloof as Londoners, they appear to be a warm, contented and – happily for me – talkative bunch. I’ve long enjoyed the company of Australians whenever I’ve been thrown together with them. They’re fun. I think it has something to do with their national origins as a convict with no aristocracy, nothing to prove, and no reason to be a snotty bore.
So there you go, a short list of things I like about Sydney based on a few short days. My nephew who has been here for months is heartbroken to leave, as I imagine I would be too.
And now for the things I don’t like about Sydney.
Nope. I couldn’t come up with anything so I threw the question out for others in my family. My niece Lily said “I didn’t like that we weren’t there long enough,” and that’s the only thing we could add to the list of things we don’t like about Sydney: we weren’t there long enough.
“Research on wild kangaroos in Australia is challenging the notion that having a strong hand preference is a trait that developed primarily in people and other primates.
Scientists said on Thursday that these Australian marsupials displayed a natural preference for using their left hand for feeding, self-grooming and other activities. So while most people are right-handed, most kangaroos are lefties.
They found that two large, bipedal species, the eastern grey kangaroo and the red kangaroo, exhibited left-handedness in all tasks, including supporting the body with one forelimb in a tripedal stance.”
The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia tells us the other names for the Blue-Winged Kookaburra are Barking Jackass and Howling Jackass. The authors appear unable to hide their uneasy feelings about this bird. When describing the sound of its call, they write this: Appalling; a gutteral ‘klock, klock’, developing into a cacophony of mechanical squawks and screeches.
Imagine the authors crouched beneath a tree filled with appalling Howling Jackasses screeching mechanically, and there they are, the authors with their hands over their ears, and tears streaming down their faces, shrieking in horror, “Stop! Make it stop!!”